The Prelude

History of composition:

The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850 (New York: Norton, 1979), eds. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill, cited as NP. M. H. Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism (New York: Norton, 1971; cited as NS) deals with the history of The Prelude's writing. J. Wordsworth and Kenneth Johnston have written books on the subject. Most of my information comes from the Introduction to Home at Grasmere (The Cornell Wordsworth), ed. Beth Darlington, cited as IG.

WW wrote the first version of The Prelude while in Germany in 1799: it is called "the two-part Prelude" and it contains almost all the major parts of the later versions. By 1804, he had a five-book version. He decided to expand it into 13 books and finished it by 1805 ("the thirteen-book Prelude"). He spent the rest of his life revising the poem, performing major revisions in 1816-19 and 1832. The revised version is the version he officially authorized his executors to publish after his death (unfortunately, they did more to it than that); this is known as the 1850 Prelude--it's the fourteen-book version excerpted in Perkins. The Norton Prelude prints the 1805 and 1850 versions side by side so you can compare the two. Major changes: WW split Book X of 1805 into two books in 1850; WW cut what is known as the "Vaudracour and Julia" episode found in Book IX of the 1805 version. Minor changes: WW's revisions of individual lines demonstrate in general his acceptance of orthodox, Anglican Christianity as he grew older. He added to the 1805 version an apostrophe to the arch-conservative, Edmund Burke ("Genius of Burke!" 1850, VII.512-43); this addition is usually seen as indicating a concomittant change in political position, a renunciation of his early radicalism. See James Chandler, WW's Second Nature ch. 2; on the textual history and changes, see NP 512-526.

The Prelude and The Recluse:

During the annus mirabilis of 1797-1798 when Wordsworth lived in Alfoxden House near Coleridge in Nether Stowey, Coleridge and WW first planned WW's great poem, a poem that was going to be greater than Paradise Lost. It was to be called The Recluse or views of Nature, Man, and Society. In Coleridge's memory of the plan, a Juvenalian character would "deliver upon authority a system of philosophy" (Table Talk II.70-71; IG 3). At first, WW conceived of some of his more overtly political poems ("The Ruined Cottage," "The Discharged Soldier," and "The Old Cumberland Beggar") as comprising "1300 lines" of The Recluse (IG 3). The Prelude was at first conceived of as an appendix, and later as a prologue (an "antechapel" NP 522, 535) to The Recluse, but, in any event, WW always thought of The Prelude as a poem "prepatory" (Preface to The Excursion, NP 535) or "tributary" (Letter to De Quincey 6 March 1804, NP 531) to The Recluse: he concludes The Prelude ready to start writing "a Work that shall endure" (XIV.311). The "Work" WW is imagining himself able to finish is not just The Excursion, it is the whole Recluse of which The Excursion forms the second part. Apparently finishing The Prelude means achieving the authority necessary for constructing a philosophical system. The Recluse was to present "meditations in the Author's own person" (NP 521)--it was to be "a moral and Philosophical Poem"; The Excursion was to be "a narrative Poem" (WW to De Quincey, 6 March 1804). In his Preface to the 1814 edition of The Excursion, WW explains that The Excursion is Part II of the three-part Recluse to which The Prelude is only an introduction (IG 4, NP 521) and offers a Prospectus for the whole poem (Prospectus quoted in full in the Appendix to NS). Abrams sees this Prospectus as WW's declaration of his poetic program. The versified Prospectus forms the last lines of "Home at Grasmere," labelled in the manuscript "The Recluse--Part first, Book first." "Home at Grasmere" was never published by WW nor directed by him to be published after his death, as was The Prelude. If WW had finished the project as planned, The Recluse would have totalled about 33,000 lines (Paradise Lost is only 10,500).

As can be seen from his letters, WW (and with him his family--Dorothy, Mary) agonized his whole life over not finishing The Recluse. He conceived of it as "the Task of his life" (Dorothy to Lady Beaumont 11 April 1805, NP 533; WW to Sir George Beaumont 3 June 1805, NP 534).

There are two commonly held ideas about the unfinished Recluse:

A. First, WW felt unwilling to publish The Prelude while he was alive because it describes the growth of an as yet unproven genius (see WW to De Quincey, 6 March 1804, NP 531); he felt the egoism (focus on self) of The Prelude would only be justified by the completed Recluse (NP 520).

B. Second, WW could not have finished The Recluse as he and Coleridge planned it. Why? Some possibilities:

  1. Coleridge was a philosopher, WW a primarily narrative and dramatic poet who could not therefore make his own particular poetic genius fit into Coleridge's plan to present a philosophical system in propria persona (IG 6).
  2. Coleridge failed to provide WW with such a system, as they had originally planned,<1> and WW was not able to (re)construct Coleridge's philosophical system (NP 521).
  3. Constructing philosophical systems and poetry are mutually exclusive enterprises. In any case, everyone pretty much recognizes how overwhelming the task was that WW proposed to undertake in writing The Recluse: "to synthesize humankind's philosophical, scientific, historical, and political knowledge and experience in poetry that would move people to realize on earth the Utopian vision confined for centuries to their hopes and dreams" (IG 4).

The most interesting aspect of WW's failure to write the main philosophical section of The Recluse is that every time he tried to write it, he ended up instead reworking The Prelude.

Coleridge's exhortations to WW which may have elicited The Prelude: "I am anxiously eager to have you steadily employed on `The Recluse' . . . . I wish you would write a poem, in blank verse, addressed to those, who, in consequence of the complete failure of the the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes of the amelioration of mankind, and are sinking into an almost epicurean selfishness, disguising the same under the soft titles of domestic attachment and contempt for visionary philosophes. It would do great good, and might form a Part of `The Recluse'" (STC to WW, Sept. 1799).

"I dare affirm that he [WW] will hereafter be admitted as the first & greatest philosophical Poet--the only man who has effected a compleat and constant synthesis of Thought & Feeling and combined them with Poetic Forms, with the music of pleasurable passion and with Imagination. . . . and I prophesy immortality to his Recluse, as the first & finest philosophical Poem, if only it be (as it undoubtedly will be) a Faithful Transcript of his own most august & innocent Life, of his own habitual Feelings & Modes of seeing and hearing" (STC to Richard Sharp, 15 January 1804).

<1>When Coleridge fell ill and left England for Malta in 1804, Wordsworth wrote two letters begging Coleridge to give him notes for the philosophical section of The Recluse: "if it should please God that I survive you, I should reproach myself for ever in writing the work if I had neglected to procure this help" (6 March 1804, qtd. IG 6). Coleridge claimed that he sent Wordsworth the notes and that they must have "sunk to the bottom of the Sea!", but this might have been one of those "the check is in the mail" responses.

The Prelude

Click on Each Book to see a Select Bibliography:

  1. Book I
  2. Book II
  3. The Book of Books: Book V
  4. Book VI
  5. Book VII
  6. Book VIII
  7. The Revolution Books (1805 IX-X; 1850 IX-XI)
  8. Book XI (1805) or XII (1850)
  9. Last Book (XIII in 1805; XIV in 1850)

Most Discussed Passages

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